School of the Cult: Argus (1972)

Written on

November 16, 2011

Forget about Thin Lizzy for a moment. Forget Iron Maiden, Opeth, and Rainbow. Pretend Led Zeppelin never got past “Whole Lotta Love.” We would be in a world where rock n’ roll and heavy metal music lacked one of its more compelling, enduring themes – mysticism.

We would still have Wishbone Ash’s Argus: a 1971 release that took rock to places it had briefly touched on, but never quite completely dove into. It is one of the greatest recorded contributions to music history, but it has never quite been given the praise it deserves. Engineered by Martin Birch – who would go on to produce every important Iron Maiden release, from Killers through Fear of the Dark – Wishbone Ash’s cornerstone piece is as valuable to early heavy metal as Paranoid. Ash brought out the dueling guitars years before Thin Lizzy stamped their trademark on Jailbreak, and brought out the riffs while Priest were still finding their identity.

Lester bangs once wrote that Master of Reality suffers next to Paranoid because its solutions to the problems Sabbath raise early on are cop-outs (smoke weed to ease your pain). Argus solves these problems by serious internal reflection.

The primordial giant Argus Panoptes was all-seeing – he is described in Greek mythology as having a thousand eyes. Like the creature of its namesake, this record is all-seeing. It touches on meaningful experience, with weightiness and reflective meditation like Malick’s Tree of Life, but also with the unassuming, unpretentious openness of a child seeing the world for the first time like in Truffaut’s L’argent de Poche. It seeks impossibilities with awareness of the unattainable, as in “Blowin’ Free,” when Martin Turner sings:

She was far away
I found it hard to reach her.
She told me you can try
But it’s impossible to find her.
In my dreams everything was all right –
In your schemes you can only try.

Argus is about struggles. It is about coming to terms with mortality. It is about putting aside one’s own life for a greater purpose. It is a self-reflective album – it is also a highly conscious one. Wishbone Ash wrote about sacrifice of the body and the spirit. They wrote about kings, great battles, and the self-sacrifice of the warrior long before Steve Harris did. Its answer to the problems brought up by the proto-metal albums of 1969 and 1970 is in this great journey that it recounts. Argus pleads with its listener to engage with nature, for there lie the answers: “far beyond the hills / where earth and sky will meet again / are shadows like an opening hand / control the secrets that I’ve yet to find, and wonder at the light in which they stand.” Wishbone Ash do not lead us along this path – they remind us that it is there.

Listening to Argus – fuck that, immersing yourself in Argus – is as much a spiritual exercise as coming to terms with your own death. “Warrior” deals with leaving behind what one knew of their world, as well as what one thought they knew of their world. It chooses the path of the resistant soldier over the subjected slave. Its solution against tyranny is to fight – but just as Argus seems to be embracing violent resistance, it turns to a non-violent exercise in closer “Throw Down the Sword.” The end of the journey abandons the way of the soldier, resolving in non-violence. It elects trust in oneself over resistance, returning to the home of the self left behind in “Warrior.” The path is not abandoned, but it is returned to after having seen death – a Cartesian moment that allows for the attainment of a universal perspective of the self – to finish the Hadotian spiritual exercise. The Warrior returns home, self-transformed. But the search carries on. Self-reflection never ends, because there is always something of ourselves that we need to work on.

Throw down the sword,
And leave the glory –
A story time can never change.
To walk the road, the load I have to carry –
A journey’s end, a wounded soul.
There were times when I stood at death’s own door
Only searching for an answer.

Fuck it, just check out the cover, its Darth Vader walking into a valley with a spear.

[Retired] When not listening to Frank Zappa and Captain Beyond, Max Splice combines with his younger brother Danny to form rock collective Lion Splicer. They hang out on Facebook here. In his free time, Max also programs film festivals for a repertory theater in Chicago.